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Are Writing Deficiencies Creating a Lost

Generation of Business Writers?


ZANE K. QUIBLE
FRANCES GRIFFIN
OKLAHOMA STATE UNIVERSITY
STILLWATER, OKLAHOMA

ABSTRACT. Business professionals


and instructors often view writing skills as T hat many employers in the United
States are dissatisfied with their
employees writing skills is not a surprise
material to decipher the intended mean-
ing; and (c) the outcome when an incor-
rect decision is made because of poorly
one of the most important qualifications
to individuals who frequently peruse the or ineffectively written material.
that employees should possess. However, professional literature in nearly any aca- Employers in the public sector have
many business employees, including recent demic field or discipline (Gray, Emerson, reported similar writing deficiencies
college graduates, have serious writing & MacKay, 2005; Wise, 2005). Although among their employees. A 2005 NCW
the expressions of dismay are frequent publication summarized feedback from
deficiencies, especially in their ability to
and often strong, educators have done the human resources divisions for 49 of
use standard English. As a result, American little to rectify the situation. the 50 states:
businesses spend billions of dollars annu- Writing is considered an even more impor-
ally to remediate these writing deficiencies Costs of Employees Poor Writing tant job requirement for the states nearly
Skills 2.7 million employees than it is for the
(College Board, the National Commission private-sector employees studied in the
on Writing for Americas Families, Schools, Deficiencies in employees writ- Commissions previous survey of leading
U.S. businesses. Still, despite the high value
and Colleges, 2004). In this article, the ing skills have tangible and intangible that state employers put on writing skills,
authors examine possible reasons for these costs. In 2004, the National Commis- a significant number of their employees
sion on Writing (NCW) published the do not meet states expectations. (College
deficiencies and offer evidence that a modi- Board, the National Commission on Writ-
results of a study for which it had
fied context-based approach, the glossing collected cost data from 64 of 120 ing for Americas Families, Schools, and
Colleges, 2005, p. 3)
approach, and consistent error marking can large American corporations that were
reduce the number of sentence-level errors affiliated with the Business Round- Employers have consistently ranked
table and that employed nearly 8 mil- oral and written communication skills
students make.
lion people. According to the report, as among the most important, if not
American firms may spend as much as the most important, qualifications their
Keywords: context-based approach, gram- $3.1 billion annually to remediate their employees should possess (Gray et al.,
mar, punctuation, rules-based approach, employees writing deficiencies (Col- 2005; Kelly & Gaedeke, 1990; McDaniel
lege Board, the National Commission & White, 1993). Given the importance
writing deficiencies
on Writing for Americas Families, of communication skills to job success
Schools, and Colleges, 2004). and the communication deficiencies of
Copyright 2007 Heldref Publications The intangible costs of employees employees, the frustration expressed
deficient writing skills are (a) image by American businesses is understand-
degradation for both employees and able. The following statement from the
employers; (b) negative impact on pro- 2004 NCW report articulates the dis-
ductivity when employees must reread, satisfaction of American employers:
perhaps several times, poorly written The skills of new college graduates

32 Journal of Education for Business


are deplorableacross the board: spell- that encourage the teaching of grammar Although the context-based approach
ing, grammar, sentence structure. . . . I rather than English language arts instruc- has many proponents, it is not without
tion. (NCTE, 1985, p. 1)
cant believe people come out of college opposition. Sams (2003) indicated that
now not knowing what a sentence is The NCTE (2006) affirmed its posi- the grammar-in-context approach has an
(College Board, the National Commis- tion regarding the use of grammar drills inherent flaw because
sion on Writing for Americas Families, in a news release stating that most Eng-
it treats grammar as an isolated set of rules,
Schools, and Colleges, 2004, p. 14). lish teachers do not see themselves as thereby considering the written product
grammar police (p. 1) patrolling for under review as the only relevant con-
The Role of Grammar Instruction sentence-level deficiencies in their stu- text for grammar instruction. It completely
in Writing Classes dents writing. ignores the context from which the rules
As the rules-based approach fell out derive, the language system itself. Quite
Educators have frequently debated simply, students have no background
of favor, the context-based approach, knowledge about grammar, no vocabulary,
how grammar is best taught. Accord-
strongly advocated by Weaver (1996, no concepts, no context, no means for
ing to Doniger (2003), whether teach-
1998), became the preferred means of understanding teachers explanations of
ing grammar has a beneficial effect, no rules or their application. Thus, someone
teaching grammar and punctuation.
effect, or even a harmful effect on stu- who attempts to teach grammar in context,
Rather than using the repetitive gram-
dents writing has been a controversial is, in effect, attempting to teach grammar
mar or punctuation drills characteris- in a vacuum. (p. 63)
topic for at least 4 decades. Historically,
tic of TSG, the context-based approach
teachers have taught grammar using a
focuses grammar instruction on what Although teaching grammar and
rules-based approach, also known as
students are reading and writing (i.e., punctuation in the context of writing,
traditional school grammar (Hillocks
formal grammar instruction is cen- as advocated by Weaver (1996), has
& Smith, 2003), two prominent charac-
tered on the text created by students). been promoted as an effective alterna-
teristics of which are teaching parts of
Although most of the grammar instruc- tive to the rules-based approach, our
speech and sentence diagramming.
tion is likely based on the errors found observations correlate to those of the
Beginning in the 1960s, an abun-
in the students writing, some grammar employers interviewed by the NCW:
dance of research data showed the inef-
and punctuation instruction also may Students writing skills are no more
fectiveness of the rules-based approach
focus on error-free constructions. In and may be lesseffective than they
(Braddock, Lloyd-Jones, & Schoer,
this context-based approach, as Weav- were 15 to 20 years ago. Johansen and
1963; Elley, Barham, Lamb, & Wyl-
er (1996) pointed out, the grammar Shaw (2003) have a possible expla-
lie, 1975; Harris, 1962; Hillocks, 1986;
instruction that the students receive var- nation for this observation: Some
Noguchi, 1991). According to Hillocks,
ies from school to school, class to class, English teachers decided not to teach
school officials who require that tra-
and student to student, and teachers grammar at all when research findings
ditional school grammar be taught are
generally offer such instruction at the showed the ineffectiveness of the TSG
doing their students a gross disservice
time of need. Thus, subjectverb agree- approach and recommended the use of
(p. 248). Over the years, Hillocks has
ment may not be discussed until one the context-based approach.
repeated his thoughts and has cited the
or more students make a subjectverb Perhaps one difficulty in this dis-
works of others whose thinking paral-
agreement error, and the sentences in cussion is the definition of writing as
lels his: Research over a period of 100
which such errors were made will be Hillocks and the NCTE use the term. In
years has consistently shown that the
the focus of the instruction. In using the his published work, rarely does Hillocks
teaching of traditional school grammar
context-based approach, teachers pres- (1996) mention correctness as a char-
(TSG) has had little or no effect on
ent grammar and punctuation rules, but acteristic of good writing. The NCTE
students, particularly on their writing
the application of the approach is based (2006) statement also seems to focus
(Hillocks & Smith, 2003, p. 721).
on text created or read by studentsnot on other aspects of good writing in
Opposition to using the repetitive
on isolated grammar exercises. its reference to grammar as being an
drills and grammar or punctuation exer-
Weaver (1996) cited several studies important writing resource. However,
cises characteristic of the rules-based
that show the advantages of the context- the comments in the two NCW reports
approach was so strong that in 1985, the
based approach, including studies by (College Board, the National Commis-
National Council of Teachers of English
Calkins (1986), DiStefano and Killion sion on Writing for Americas Fami-
(NCTE) board of directors passed a
(1984), Harris (1962), Kolln (1981), lies, Schools, and Colleges, 2004, 2005)
position statement that is still posted on
McQuade (1980), Noguchi (1991), place correctness at the sentence level
the NCTE Web page and states,
and OHare (1973). In each study, the at the forefront. If educators distinguish
Resolved, that the National Council of researchers found that students who between teaching correct grammar
Teachers of English affirm the position learned language conventions in the and mechanics and teaching writing,
that the use of isolated grammar and context of their writing generally made perhaps they can start to address the
usage exercises [is] not supported by the- fewer mechanical errors in their writ- problem. Ironically, according to Baron
ory and research [and] is a deterrent to the
improvement of students speaking and ing than did students who studied the (2003), college professors were recently
writing . . . and that the NCTE urge [sic] language conventions in isolationa reported in a study undertaken by the
the discontinuance of testing practices characteristic of TSG. publishers of the American College Test

September/October 2007 33
(ACT) as indicating that grammar is es will likely be as frustrating to the Students sentence: My older brother John
the most important skill for students instructors as their products are frus- lives in New York City, he is going to visit
me this weekend.
entering college, but high school teach- trating to those who hire them. If the
ers consider it to be the least important status quo is allowed to continue, gov- Instructors notations on students paper:
skill. According to the same study, the ernment intervention becomes a much Superlative adjective error (older should
discrepancy between college expecta- stronger likelihood, as has occurred in be oldest); comma-splice error (change
comma to semicolon or insert and); and
tions and high school instruction may the United Kingdom. parallel structure error (he is going to. .
explain why nearly 20% of students . should be he plans to. . .)
entering college take a remedial writing Suggestions
Note: In an actual situation, the codes of
course. Although teaching correct gram-
Researchers have posed a num- the errors reflecting these three deficien-
mar and mechanics certainly does not cies would be placed at the location of
constitute teaching writing, we argue ber of alternatives to the rules-based
each error. For example, sup. adj may
that for business writing, correctness is approach. However, unless these alter- be written at the location of the first error,
a critical characteristic of effective writ- natives help students overcome their CS may be written at the location of the
ten communication. sentence-level deficiencies, the writing second error, and PS may be written at
weaknesses of employees as identified the location of the third error.
Doniger (2003) wrote that the oppo-
sition to teaching TSG may be weak- in the two NCW reports will continue We believe that students sentence-
ening because recently, the armor of frustrate employers. level errors should always be marked
the anti-grammar instruction stance has Hillocks and Smith (2003), who are as part of grading their work. If English
shown chinks and dents (p. 101). Hud- strong opponents of the TSG approach, teachers do not see themselves as gram-
son (2001) concurred: recommended the sentence-combining mar police and therefore do not mark
technique as an alternative to the con- grammar and punctuation errors, students
The pendulum seems to be on the return text approach. When using the sen-
swing. It would be naive to think that remain unaware of the magnitude of their
the pendulum is driven by academic tence-combining technique, instructors writing insufficiency and have no way of
researchindeed, there has been very give students a series of short sentences knowing what types of deficiencies need
little research on grammar and writing in a set (from two to as many as eight to be corrected. The result is that they
since the flurry in the 60s and 70s. . . . or nine) and ask students to use all of
However, the result is that there is now continue to make the same sentence-
the ideas in these sentences to cre- level errors. The instructors who teach
much more enthusiasm in some educa-
tional circles for the idea that conscious ate a new, more structurally complex in other business disciplines also can
grammar (resulting from formal teaching) sentence. According to Cooper (1975), assist by marking sentence-level errors
could have the useful benefit of improv- no other single teaching approach has in their students written work. They also
ing writing. (p. 1) ever consistently been shown to have a can consider writing quality, including
Hudson (2001) reported that in the beneficial effect on syntactic maturity correctness, as one of the components in
United Kingdom, the government has and writing quality (p. 72). However, determining grades on students written
introduced two directives: the Nation- when considering the errors in the sen- work. This can be facilitated when an
al Literacy Strategy in 1997 and the tences students create, Jackson (1982) academic unit (e.g., department or col-
National Curriculum for English in found that sentence-combining prac- lege) adopts a uniform error-code list or
1999. These directives advocate reintro- tice did not reduce errors among basic writing style handbook that all instruc-
ducing the teaching of grammar into all writers. Hayes (1984) indicated that tional personnel use when grading their
primary and secondary state-run schools sentence combining has the same level students work. Thus, if a students paper
in the United Kingdom. of effectiveness in reducing mechani- contains a comma splice, the instructor
The instructors who teach writing cal errors as TSG instruction. records the code for the splice on the
courses, including written business We believe that a modified sentence- students paper at the location of the
communication courses, are chal- combining technique in which sentence- error and provides a correction.
lenged to develop new approaches level errors are identified and the rules Some researchers show that requiring
to help students remediate their sen- governing the correction of these errors students to correct certain marked errors
tence-level errors. These courses are are explained is a viable option. Illustra- is helpful. Johansen and Shaw (2003)
likely the last writing-oriented courses tion of the modified sentence-combin- advocated this with their glossing
that the students take before receiving ing strategy is: approach, which uses the following five
their undergraduate degree. Given the Directions: Using the ideas presented in steps: (a) the teacher evaluates students
disparity between the ineffective writ- the following sentences, combine them writing and marks their sentence-level
ing skills of those entering the work- into one compound sentence. errors; (b) the teacher highlights the
force and the level of writing skills John is my brother. errors that he or she wants students to
American employers require of their further consider; (c) the teacher returns
He is the oldest of the three boys in my
employees, the instructors educat- family. the students work, asking them to cor-
ing future business employees cannot rect all errors; (d) each student receives
ignore the disconnect. If instructors He lives in New York City. a summary sheet on which he or she
continue to ignore it, the consequenc- He plans to visit me this weekend. writes the grammar rules that pertain to

34 Journal of Education for Business


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36 Journal of Education for Business